What TV’s on at the BFI in February? Including Nuts In May, Penda’s Fen, Artemis 81 and Leap In The Dark

Time to look at what the BFI is showing in February. Yes, February. I never got my January guide, and since it’s now January and the February guide turned up yesterday, let’s just do February. I’ll be ahead of schedule for a change then.

February’s actually not got a huge amount of TV, but what there is is largely TV plays – and good ‘uns, too. As well as Dexter Press Gang Fletcher introducing Nuts In May, we also have a season of David Rudkin’s TV plays. Who’s Rudkin? Well, he wrote about 90% of the pagan dramas in TMINE’s guide to religion, including Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81, both of which get an airing in the season (although since the BFI describes the latter as ‘one of the medium’s greatest productions’, I’m not entirely sure they’ve actually watched it yet). 

But as well as those, Rudkin’s The Living Grave is also being shown. This was part of a somewhat odd, supernatural anthology series that aired on BBC Two called Leap In The Dark. This ran for 20 episodes in four series, over a period of eight years from 1973 to 1980, and featured work from Rudkin, as well as Fay Weldon and Alan Garner among others. Each episode featured a different incident of the paranormal, some in the modern day, but most set in other time periods.

So far, so ordinary, you might think. What’s odd about Leap In the Dark is that all these incidents were real events – indeed, the first series consisted only of documentaries, while the later series are technically docudramas, rather than dramas. Rushkin’s The Living Grave is about a young woman who regresses under hypnosis to the 1700s, with Rushkin’s play recreating both the hypnosis sessions and the 1700s. And it’s this week’s Wednesday’s Play.

Tuesday 2 February
18:20 NFT2
Churchill’s People: Pritan 
BBC 1974. Dir Michael Hayes. With Jeremy Kemp, Claire Davenport, Paul Darrow. 50min
This ambitious series of plays is based on Winston Churchill’s complex book A History of the English-speaking Peoples. Not being 
an easy task to bring this work to life on screen, it was to David Rudkin that the BBC turned – and his love of ancient history and myth served him well. This first episode begins with life in Britain under Roman rule and the uprising of Boudicca.
+ Churchill’s People: The Coming of the Cross
BBC 1975. Dir Alan Gibson. 
With Leo McKern, Robert Hardy, Eric Lander, David Robb. 50min
A seminal work in the Rudkin canon, this episode dramatises the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, and the division of the British Church. It’s possible to see similarities here to 1983’s Across the Water, with its interest in both Celtic and Catholic identity, and to 1974’s Penda’s Fen in the use of the King Penda myth.

Thursday 4 February
20:30 NFT1
Dexter Fletcher introduces: Play for Today: Nuts in May
BBC 1976. Dir Mike Leigh. 
With Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman, Anthony O’Donnell. 81min. 
We welcome actor and director Dexter Fletcher to discuss how 
this television film from BBC’s Play for Today strand inspired him. Featuring pitch-perfect performances and an early insight into the comic genius of Mike Leigh, Nuts in May introduces us to Keith and Candice-Marie, a couple on a mission of no-nonsense camping while strictly following the country code.

Sunday 7 February
14:30 NFT2
Artemis 81
BBC 1981. Dir Alastair Reid. With Sting, Hywel Bennett, Dinah Stabb, Dan O’Herlihy. 181min
The future of humanity is affected by an angel of light and an angel of death in this extraordinary, groundbreaking work that’s part-gothic fantasy and part-mythic sci-fi. Championed by the great drama producer David Rose and realised through Reid’s wildly imaginative direction, Artemis 81 pushes the boundaries of TV drama to achieve epic scale and power,  and is firmly established as one of the medium’s greatest productions. 

Thursday 11 February
18:40 NFT3
Across The Water
BBC 1983. Dir Paul Seed. 
With Liam Neeson, Wendy Morgan, Jay Hilalen, Gerald Mannix Flynn. 45min
Rudkin effortlessly combines a certain hypnotic poetry with political charge in this story of one man’s attempt to retrieve his adopted daughter when she’s abducted by her Irish Republican father. In searching for the girl he’s forced to confront his own loss of Irish identity, having himself emigrated to England. 
Liam Neeson gives a fine performance in this early role, and within this very personal story Rudkin is able to create a nuanced examination of what it means to be Irish.
+ Screenplay: White Lady 
BBC 1987. Dir David Rudkin. With Cornelius Garrett, Sophie Thompson, Jessica Martin 45min
Directed and written by Rudkin, this is a highly personal protest against the chemical industry and its assault on the landscape through the use of pesticides. A father estranged from his wife struggles to bring up his two young daughters. Despite their poverty, theirs is a rural idyll – 
but just who is the mysterious lady in white that haunts their childish pleasures?

Friday 19 February
18:10 NFT3
Play for Today: Penda’s Fen 
BBC 1974. Dir Alan Clarke. With Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson, Ian Hogg. 90min
In one young man’s search for  his sense of self, Rudkin takes us  on a magnificently ambiguous metaphysical journey quite unlike any other TV play. The cult status  of Penda’s Fen is no doubt due to its potent mix of mysticism, music and landscape which taps into an elemental truth about who we are and our pagan past. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see what many regard as Rudkin’s finest work on  the big screen. 

Wednesday 24 February
18:10 NFT3
Leap in the Dark: The Living Grave + David Rudkin in conversation with critic Michael Billington
BBC 1980. Dir Colin Rose. With Lesley Dunlop, Ian Hogg, Tony Doyle, Michael Bangerter. 30min (TRT 90min)
Told with an amazing economy and power, this is a dramatised reconstruction of the memories of ‘Pauline’ who when regressed in a hypnotic state becomes ‘Kitty,’ a poor girl who lived in or around 1700. Rudkin skilfully intertwines transcripts of the actual sessions with a poetic reimagining of this girl’s wretched life to build a chilling portrait of loss and loneliness. 

Champions’ priority booking: January 11 11.30am
Members’ priority booking opens: January 12 11.30am
Public booking opens: January 19 11.30am

Prices (excluding gift aid)
£9.15 (members)
£6.85 (member concs)
£10.65 (non-members)
£8.35 (non-members concs)
Under 16s £6.00

Prices (including gift aid and voluntary contribution)
£10.10 (members)
£7.55 (member concs)
£11.75 (non-members)
£9.20 (non-members concs)

Reduced prices for weekday matinees. Conc prices are available to senior citizens, students, unwaged and disability visitors. Proof of eligibility may be required.
As always, visit the BFI web site for more details.